Marisa Johnson has a music room in her northwest Las Vegas apartment, complete with sound system.
Many nights, she sings “all night — till 4 in the morning.” Yet no one complains.
“I think they either like it,” Johnson says of her neighbors, “or they can’t hear me.”
It must be the former, because Johnson’s a classically trained opera singer who’s hoping to expand her audience with her debut album, “My Own Way.”
Friday at the Las Vegas Event Center, Johnson will perform selections from “My Own Way” at an album release concert, introducing local audiences to her brand of classical crossover, which she describes as “the little genre that could.”
Johnson knows it could change lives — because it certainly changed hers.
One of seven children, Johnson has been singing “ever since I could talk,” she says.
But in her hometown of Bakersfield, Calif. — the honky-tonk headquarters of such legends as Merle Haggard — music meant country music.
“My grandma put on her Tammy Wynette records,” and Johnson went “singin’ along to Tammy,” she says. At age 9, she won her first singing competition belting out Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.”
When she was 11, however, Johnson was home sick — and had the privilege of controlling the TV’s remote control because of her illness, a rare privilege in her family of nine.
“I’ll never forget the day,” she says, recalling “flipping through the channels” — until she tuned in to a PBS broadcast of Charlotte Church’s Christmas special. And stopped.
“I was blown away by this girl,” Johnson says of the Welsh-born Church, who shot to fame in the late 1990s as a preteen, with “Voice of an Angel” and other classical crossover recordings.
“I had never heard opera,” Johnson says, but she was captivated by “the most beautiful style” of music she’d ever heard. “I thought, ‘I want to do that. I want to sing like that — and I don’t know what that is.’ ”
From there, Johnson bought a CD and “locked myself in the back bathroom” to practice singing.
“I would make it a competition,” she says. “I thought, ‘if she can hit those high notes, I can hit those high notes.’ ”
Hearing Sarah Brightman sing Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” (the “Gianni Schicchi” soprano aria Johnson sings on “My Own Way”) prompted Johnson to start buying opera CDs, “not really understanding them, just loving the music.”
Loving the music led to singing the music, which led to Johnson winning a variety of contests (from Bakersfield’s Idol to Kern County’s Most Talented Singer) and to studying music — first at a community college and, ultimately, at the University of Southern California, where she studied opera.
In addition to her classical singing, Johnson did musical theater, chafing at “the strictness of opera,” she says. “I couldn’t improvise — I felt so boxed in. But in pop and musical theater, there’s so much crap passed off as good music.”
So she decided to write her own, Johnson says.
“When people say you can’t, I just don’t listen.”
Friday’s concert will feature Johnson singing with a string quintet, a drummer, two pianists and about 20 members of the Vegas Master Singers.
In addition to selections from her album, there’ll be pop songs (such as Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and Radiohead’s “Creep”) “reorchestrated to fit the classical style,” plus folk songs, spirituals and, of course, arias.
“It’s going to be eclectic,” Johnson says, promising a little bit of everything. “But I’ll be singing everything in my classical voice. That’s the glue that holds it all together.”
After earning her USC degree, Johnson decided to “move anywhere where I can sing opera for a living.”
That led her to The Venetian, where she sang as a strolling performer for four months before joining the cast of “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” at Bally’s.
These days, Johnson’s “day job” involves working the graveyard shift at the Rio as a “bevertainer,” where she sings pop music.
“It’s fun,” she says, adding that “it’s nice to do a job where you’re surrounded by fellow performers. We’re like a family.”
Every other week, Johnson teaches music at Sunrise Children’s Hospital. She also performs at The Smith Center’s once-a-month Composers Showcases and sings at monthly functions as part of Opera Las Vegas’ Young Artists program.
She’s also sung lead roles in the Sin City Opera productions “The Medium” and “An Incomplete Education.”
Sin City Opera may stage its productions at the Onyx Theatre, located inside a Commercial Center fetish shop, but “as long as we’re moving in a positive direction,” she says, “I don’t mind singing in a sex shop.”
Overall, Johnson ranks as “a very experienced performer and a very poised performer,” says Jim Sohre, director of Opera Las Vegas’ Young Artists program. “She can engage the audience and sing beautifully besides.”
Following Friday’s concert, Johnson plans to market her album to New York- and Los Angeles-based agents, managers and record companies and will shoot a music video next month. She’s also working on “a brand-new sound” with a Florida-based producer.
“I wish it was just as easy as ‘I practice and I sing,’ ” she says.
But she’s always on the lookout for opportunities to promote herself and her music.
One surfaced when soprano Renee Fleming made her Smith Center debut in late April.
After Fleming’s performance, Johnson waited in line for an autograph — and when Fleming signed her CD for Johnson, Johnson gave “the people’s diva” a copy of “My Own Way,” because “you honestly never know who you’re going to meet — like Renee Fleming.” (Fleming’s top-selling recording, Johnson says, is classical crossover: a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”)
Fleming graciously accepted Johnson’s CD, telling her, “ ‘We need more women songwriters.’ ”
And Johnson thought that was that — until she woke up the next morning to an email from Fleming, who had listened to “My Own Way” and “applauded me for my creativity.”
That encouragement was “kind of the motivation I needed,” Johnson says. “It’s all going to work out. It has to. Renee Fleming said so.”
Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.